James Michalopoulos Looks Back on 36 Years of Painting New Orleans
Our interview with the artist who is the focus of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's newest exhibit.
From gallery windows in the French Quarter to posters for Jazz Fest and even the walls of European Museums, his work is instantly recognizable even if you don't know his name. James Michalopoulos came to New Orleans from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1981 looking for an adventure and quickly fell in love with the city's colors, buildings, and people.
Self-taught, he started sketching and painting all of it as a street artist in Pirate's Alley and would hustle his pieces for two or three dollars at the trolley stops. Now, 36 years later, Michalopoulos' work is the focus of a career retrospective taking over the top floor of The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The galleries follow his stylistic journey from his abstract, musically shaped streetscapes of New Orleans' rainbow-colored houses to his larger-than-life, intensely textural portraits of famous figures like Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and Fats Domino and his swirling, geometric landscapes inspired by the scenes outside his studio in the rural Mâconnais district of France.
We sat down to talk to Michalopoulos about how he transformed from a street artist in the Pirate's Alley to having his own gallery around the corner from it, the unique beauty of the city and the state of Louisiana, and how he's still not where he wants to be as an artist just yet.
SL: You started out as as a street artist in the French Quarter. I was wondering if you could tell us more about how you made the leap from there to being more recognized for your work, which has become iconic.
JM: I was kind of dragged kicking and screaming out of my very basic survival mode as an artist. I had a fair amount of success as far as those things go, but the thing I really liked about life as a street artist or an artist that was struggling was that I couldn't fall any further, and there was something about that I found very attractive. So I knew if I had $15 in my pocket I could make it for a week so I would spend my time on things that I otherwise wouldn't...I would go out and hustle my little drawings at the bus stop or the trolley stop and make two or three dollars a shot, and the next thing you know, I was doing them in the courtroom, and then I developed a fairly strong portrait business. That was great until I discovered that I wanted to be more of a painter than a portrait artist so I started to experiment with it. People started to respond very strongly to my work, and there was a demand for it so the number of shows I was at started to increase and I was able to continue my focus on developing my style. I'm still in that basic orientation. It's always a new study. It's always a new horizon. It's never over. I'm not satisfied yet, and I'm not where I'm going to go yet, but I'm burning to get there.
SL: You're still hustling, it's just not at the trolley stop anymore.
JM: Exactly! You never know how people are going to react. Success in the realm of the arts is so very difficult to explain and complicated and difficult to predict. I didn't know if I would ever be successful and I didn't ever imagine that I would have a great deal of success. Where I come from is I do this for love. I do this for excitement. I do this for fun, for dedication, and I take what I can get. I'm thrilled to have the level of success I do have, however I'd really like to have a much greater level of success and I'm hellbent to make that real.
SL: You said that while people may recognize the subject matter of your paintings, they also get to understand the spirit of them. I was wondering how you go about painting energy into your pieces.
JM: Allowing yourself to follow your feelings rather than having an intellectual domination of the process. You might say to yourself, I know quite well the process of proportion and this is two-to-three but this feels so vertical to me so I'm going to allow the sense of an increased verticality even though I know I could calibrate it more closely. It captures the spirit of it more closely to my intuitive and emotional sense of a place. So I just try to roll with the sense of a scene rather than going with a technical viewpoint. I struggled with letting go with the technical perspective.
SL: Do you feel like New Orlean is the best place to apply that notion to? It seems like it would be more natural to do that here than anywhere else?
JM: I agree, although there are inspirational elements and scenes and moments everywhere you go. So you open up to that. In suburban Maryland I might find signs of life on the edge of parking lot at Wal-Mart inspirational. So even in banal suburban situations i can take inspiration, but there's something of beauty in all things. You just don't have to work as hard here.
SL: How do you focus your lens and land on a point you want to paint when there's so much to see in this landscape?
JM: I try to avoid too much reflection because there are so many points of interest. My general rule of thumb is to go with my gut and rest attuned to the excitement in an image and avoid excessive reflection and rumination on what would be better one way or another... I just open myself up to a moment of aha and beauty and inspiration and I roll with it until I don't. I try to rest attuned to that too because you can find yourself in the middle of something that you're excited about or were once excited about and then find it flat.
SL: Is there a specific neighborhood or person or even a specific corner that you love to paint over and over or find uniquely inspirational now?
JM: There are neighborhoods I return to like the French Quarter, the Marigny, Tremé, the Lower Garden District, but I must say even Gentilly and Downtown and CBD, there's no part of New Orleans I don't love and i'm not interested. But even in the state of Louisiana I'm interested in the North Shore, Ponchatoula, Hammond, all of these are very interesting spots for me. When you live in a state as rich and beautiful as Louisiana, it's a struggle to decide where to put your energy.
You see the movement and change over time and sometimes it's like a wonderful new freshness and it's so lovely. But, I'm so old now, I've been able to see things renovated and then fall back into disrepair, and then be renovated again. I love to see the changes and the evolution and to reflect on the husbandry of these beautiful historic structures and the lack of husbandry for them and the lack of respect for the patrimony, the lack of respect for historic preservation, and the respect for it all of. It's grist for the mill.
SL: Not many people get to walk into a room with over 30 years of their work and the trajectory of their career hung on the walls. I'm so curious, what does that feel like?
JM: It feels great. It's such a wonderful experience to see it all hung up on the wall, and I'm so thrilled to be able to share it with people and have this cross section because it represents work over a number of years. I'm really happy to share it with people. I think that the staff at the Ogden has done a marvelous job at putting this together and shepherding the show. I wish always I could add more. I wish I had another floor. It motivates me to new work. I care. I really care. Even after all these years, I care that I can bring something to the table and that I can add something that I can leave something that moves somebody or they find useful or meaningful in their lives. I mean what else is life about other than that? For me to contribute something, there's nothing more meaningful than that.